A solar panel is displayed on a wall near signage at the entrance of the new Tesla Inc. showroom in New York.
Mark Kauzlarich | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A U.S. federal agency is considering as evidence a former Tesla employee’s complaint about how the company managed and communicated about fire risks and defects in its solar installations, CNBC has learned from documents received through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is proceeding with an investigation and has also interviewed the former Tesla employee who filed the complaint in spring 2019, Steven Henkes, who was then a Tesla solar field quality manager.
CNBC learned of the investigation by asking the CPSC for a full copy of the whistleblower complaint. The agency declined to provide the full complaint but revealed: “The records that we are withholding are related to an open investigation, and consist of internal and external reports.” The precise scope and focus of the investigation are not known at this time.
Henkes is also suing Tesla, alleging retaliation.
In a lawsuit filed in Alameda County in November 2020, Henkes said that he was fired from his job at Tesla on Aug. 3, 2020, after raising safety concerns internally then filing formal complaints with government offices, when Tesla failed to act to fix and communicate accurately with customers over what he said were unacceptable fire risks in the company’s solar installations.
Henkes declined to speak with CNBC directly but answered some questions by email through his attorney, Robert Wallace. Henkes believes “there continues to be a real threat of fires due to serial defects in the Tesla installations,” a statement from Wallace says. “The consumers have not been adequately informed of the risks.”
Tesla entered the solar business in late 2016 when it acquired SolarCity for $2.6 billion. Among other things, Tesla Energy installs rooftop photovoltaics, ground-based and carport solar energy systems.
Tesla does not break out revenue from solar on its own. “Energy generation and storage” represented only 6% of the company’s total revenue in 2020 but grew by 30% from last year, according to its end-of-year financial filing. On a Jan. 27 earnings call, Musk told analysts: “We’re putting a lot of attention on solar and it is growing rapidly. So I think it will not be long before Tesla is by far the market leader in solar.”
Tesla’s systems have been installed at homes including military housing units at Fort Bliss and other bases, schools in the L.A. unified school district, and commercial facilities including Walmart stores and Amazon warehouses.
As CNBC previously reported, Tesla solar installations have previously caught fire. In August 2019, Walmart sued Tesla for negligence after solar rooftop systems installed by Tesla Energy ignited at multiple Walmart locations.
In court filings, Walmart said that Tesla failed to properly monitor, repair and maintain these systems, even after the fires occurred. The fires caused significant damage, and faulty systems posed serious risks to employees, customers and business, according to Walmart’s complaint then.
On Nov. 5, 2019, the companies issued a joint statement saying they were looking forward to “a safe re-energization of our sustainable energy systems.” The exact terms of the companies’ settlement — and …….